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Roberto Pérez’s offensive struggles outweighed his defense in 2020

The Indians’ catcher is a master manipulator of ball and strike calls. Is that enough to justify his roster spot all by itself?

MLB: Wild Card-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start this discussion with two things that everyone can agree upon:

  1. Roberto Pérez catches baseballs and is quite good at it.
  2. Roberto Pérez swings at baseballs and unless it’s October he is not very good at it.

In a way his continued grasp of the starting catcher job in Cleveland is an experiment designed to push the conventional wisdom of catcher value to its limit. Is an elite defensive catcher who slashes .165/.264/.216 still a good everyday catcher? Just how much does he need to contribute behind the plate to make up for his foibles at it?

According to FanGraphs, he bottomed out overall in 2020. Despite his abysmal performance as a hitter, Pérez provided value at roughly the same rate as he did in 2019. This effectively neutralized his exemplary defensive efforts and made him replacement level overall. Baseball Reference came to the same conclusion, and Baseball Prospectus handed him a dreaded -0.1 WARP despite being his biggest proponent amongst the metrics sites for a number of years.

The question moving forward becomes this: Are the Indians really satisfied with the 2018 and 2020 version of Roberto Pérez? Or, is their long-term plan much more contingent on the 2019 version: a league-average hitter with surprising pop paired with arguably the best defensive skillset in all of baseball?

It’s a massive difference. One is an all-star and crucial piece to the team’s success; the other is complete liability at the end of the batting order whose place in it is justified with intangibles, vague arguments about grit, and “the pitchers just love working with this guy”.

That’s not the worst possible position to find yourself in if you’re the Indians this offseason. The floor at catcher is exceptional defense as per team philosophy, and any offensive production is a unexpected-but-welcome extension of the ceiling. Thrilling.

There are signs to suggest that Roberto Pérez will not reproduce his 35 wRC+ from 2020. For example, his BABIP was down to .259, and his slugging percentage came in at a career-worst .216. He hit twice as many balls on the ground and nearly cut his hard-hit rate in half. That indicates, to me, that a good portion of the drop-off in production may be attributable to this bizarre season. He only played in 32 games, after all. It might be that he never had quite enough time to get settled in at the plate after starting-then-stopping-then-kind-of-starting spring training again.

On the other hand, it’s possible that his aging curve is a cliff and the Indians front office is content to just take its chances that he’ll stay airborne long enough to make it work.

ZiPS suggests overall value somewhere between his 2018/2020 and 2019 performances. For the Indians to succeed in 2021, however, they’ll need to hope for the surprising pop of his bat to return and augment his defensive wizardry. Even the best rosters in baseball can’t afford to hide a replacement-level player on its everyday lineup card; with Perez set to return as backstop he feel representative of a the overall philosophy for next year:

Hey, if everyone approaches their ceiling, these guys might be pretty good. It’s the wire that the team must walk give its financial ... decision-making.